Native plants and garden hybrids

Last weekend I met with a friend who had a beautiful garden with a fairly good percentage of California natives installed not too long ago. "How's the garden," I asked, hoping for an excited response. But my friend told me that she was disappointed that the garden was stunning only for a few months in late spring and early summer. "I want flowers!" she said.  I pointed at my California fuchsia, which no longer look as good as in the October photo above, but which are still good enough for the hummingbirds. And she explained to me that she wanted more from her garden.

I know what she's trying to say. She wants something like this double Camelia, which blooms for months, has showy flowers, and seems resistant to bugs and other problems. .

Or like this yellow rose, which I photographed at Filoli.

This made me think about my mother, who never distinguished between natives and exotics but between wildflowers and garden flowers. She knew a lot about wildflowers, and made beautiful arrangements with them, but actually did not know too much about garden flowers and, I believe, found them a little boring. This distinction is not commonly made, especially among native plant enthusiasts. Not infrequently, we compare native wildflowers with exotic garden hybrids, and that's a little like comparing apples with, maybe crabapples.

You might think that garden flowers are the same as flowers of non-native plants, but I don't believe that's true. In almost all cases, the garden flowers you can buy at the nursery where carefully selected, or hybridized, and usually both in an effort to breed a plant with the most desirable characteristics. Large flowers, long bloom time, resistance to pests.

We all know you end up paying a price for everything. Tulips are no longer fragrant because the fragrance was sacrificed for other desirable characteristics. Garden flowers have had other characteristics bread out, or lost them along the way. That can be a good thing, long bloom time and large flowers are great qualities to have. But it might be a bad thing, which is one reason why Country Mouse tries not to mix native garden hybrids with her local native plants -- you just don't know what got lost along the way.

Regardless, I didn't quite know what to tell my friend. Yes, for June, July, and August Trichostemma lanatum (wooly blue curl) is a great plant to have.

But I'll readily admit that some hybridized sages give you a longer bloom time and they are more clay tolerant.

I myself enjoy the different buckwheats in my garden (here Eriogonum arborescens, a channel island buckwheat).

But the flowers are not huge, and while I enjoy how the spent flower stalks change color over time, I can see it's not everybody's cup of tea.

So, what did I tell my friend? I encouraged her to get some garden flowers for containers in her garden, and continue to enjoy the butterflies and birds that are now populating her garden. I also told her to consider getting some native hybrids. For example, there are now some excellent monkey flower selections with large flowers and long bloom time. She does not live out in the country, so taking advantage of hybrids had no drawbacks for her.

In the end, having a garden with natives is about much more than just large flowers. For me, it's continuously fascinating how the garden changes, and I always find surprises -- birds nests, butterflies, sleeping bumblebees -- that delight me more than a double camelia or a rose ever can.


Interesting post. I've struggled with a proper label for the native, non-native, and garden plants I feature on my blog. I used to only distinguish between wildflowers and garden flowers, but that gets limiting fairly quickly, especially if the wildflower is non-native or if the plant doesn't flower, like grasses and ferns. I've been most concerned with CA natives that are obviously planted or escaped from gardens outside of their native range, often SoCal. I'm glad to hear Country Mouse keeps an eye on her native garden hybrids.
Elephant's Eye said…
We're in town, so I'm less concerned about invading the fynbos across the wheatfields and vineyards and up the lower farmed slopes of the mountain. I stay with indigenous species, and have a handful of new varieties. It is my garden so I have commonorgarden roses for colour and flowers. I tend more and more to favour indigenous and wildlife. (But then South Africa's wildflowers ARE your commmonorgarden ;~)
rebecca sweet said…
Very interesting post and viewpoint. I, too, hear this same sort of complaint from my clients and encourage them to plant a little of both if its something they feel strongly about. Your suggestion of planting 'garden flowers' in containers is a great one - the best of both worlds!
ryan said…
This is always an interesting topic, I hear a lot of these things too. Sometimes it gets a little frustrating. I understand that a lot of people aren't going to be as satisfied with plants that don't bring that emotional connection with the gardens of their childhood. But oftentimes the people who are dissatisfied with natives are often comparing rather low-maintenance gardens with traditional gardens that are intensively maintained. You need to prune and stake and deadhead and space plants close together and use short-lived plants in amongst the longer lived ones if you want to have your garden full of flowers all year. Filoli has a full time gardening staff and a lot of acreage, your friend's garden probably doesn't.